Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn by Do Make Say Think (Review)

Their most unpredictable and heaviest album to date.
Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn, DMST

After last year’s stellar & Yet & Yet, Do Make Say Think established themselves (in my mind, at least) as the pre-eminent Canadian post-rock outfit. And that impression has really borne out in the past 6 months, as a number of releases from some of Do Make Say Think’s label-mates, as well as from other bands peripheral to the Constellation crew, proved to be rather disappointing and lackluster affairs.

Godspeed You Black Emperor!‘s latest opus (npi), Yanqui U.X.O., may have been more stripped down and immediate than their previous works, but it lacked much of the grandeur and scope that characterized their previous releases. The same held true for A Silver Mt. Zion’s (or whatever wordy moniker they currently go by) This is Our Punk Rock, which, despite featuring one of the group’s finest compositions (the stunning “Sow Some Lonesome Corner So Many Flowers Bloom”) often got bogged down by the overwrought vocals and excessive handwringing of Efrim’s lyrics.

And then there was Esmerine’s If Only a Sweet Surrender to the Nights to Come Be True (which featured members of Set Fire To Flames, Godspeed, and A Silver Mt. Zion churning out tired Rachel’s-inspired orchestral pieces that bordered on self-parody at times), Set Fire To Flames’ Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static (a sprawling double album with barely enough there to justify one disc, let alone two) and Molasses’ A Slow Messe (ditto).

Suffice to say, I was starting to wonder if the well had run dry up North, if this community of musicians that had once been so vital and stirring (Godspeed’s Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada and A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone… still bring me to my knees every time) was past its prime. But I still had hope for Do Make Say Think, for several reasons.

First of all, despite being part of the Constellation family, they aren’t related by blood; all of the bands I’ve mentioned above share members in an almost incestual way. Which made me wonder if, when one member starts slipping, they don’t all start slipping. And second of all, the Do Make Say Think’s catalog shows a continual progression in ideas and structures, weaving together threads of dub, psychedelia, space rock, jazz, electronica, post-punk — and with several of the members’ participation in Broken Social Scene, you can add pop to that list — in new and intriguing forms.

Suffice to say, my hope was not in vain.

I’m not too keen on declaring a band’s latest release to be their best and most complete effort so soon in the game. Partially because some albums don’t reveal their true colors until after you’ve had weeks, months even, to digest them, and partially because a band’s oldest output can still be sources of great joy and beauty that shouldn’t be written off just because something new came along. Having said that, it is very tempting to call Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn Do Make Say Think’s best album yet.

It’s certainly their most unpredictable, attempting things I’ve never heard the band do before, and their heaviest, exploding into moments of mind-blowing ferocity before leaning back into the more intricate compositions they’ve become so well-known for. There’s a weight to this album that I’ve not noticed in their earlier recordings; compared to the sparse elegance of Goodbye Enemy Airship, The Landlord is Dead, virtually every second here feels like it’s packed to bursting.

This is readily apparent on the album’s opening track, “Frederica.” Although the band has always employed keyboards and organs, they’ve never really delved into electronics in a big way. However, one can hear little laptop flourishes — synth sighs, glitchy crackles, digitally stretched horns — occasionally bubble up throughout the song. And although the band has enjoyed the occasional freakout (i.e. tracks like “Goodbye Enemy Airship” and “End of Music”), they’ve never done anything approaching “Frederica“ s multiple climaxes. The band piles on mountains of percussion — Oh, the advantages of having two percussionists! — only to rip everything apart with a buzzsaw guitar, tearing the song to shreds… only to recycle the tattered remains for the next movement.

A tattered, ragged sound, like that of a flag whipping about on a frozen February morning, opens “Auberge Le Mouton Noir” on a blustery note. Against that stark backdrop, a lone guitar rings out, playing a roughhewn melody that is one of the most evocative things the band has recorded to date. From that sparse melody, the band continues to pick up steam until they’re tearing through the track with wild abandon. The instruments sound like they’re practically tripping over themselves until they run headlong into the song’s original melody, which brings it all to a nice conclusion.

That tattered sound reappears, leading into “Outer Inner & Secret“ s tentative beginnings. But the hypnotic bassline and fluttering electronic textures can’t hold back the group’s jam forever. The song crests once, twice, and thrice before it comes crashing down in a collision of staccato guitars, inexorable drumming, and weeping horns and feedback. Out of this wreckage emerges a religious beauty rivaling anything on A Silver Mt. Zion’s albums, as slivers of guitar feedback and strings scud across a fiery sky as the drums thrash about far below.

“Jazz” has always been thrown out to describe Do Make Say Think’s sound, but that term has never felt more appropriate than with “Ontario Plates.” Beginning with another one of the group’s most delicate passages to date, layers of wistful horns weave and drift in an impressionistic manner reminiscent of Supersilent’s 6. As the song progresses, the light pitter-patter of drums grows more insistent, and the song begins an elliptical descent given shape by the emerging bassline. The song manages to remain aloft and drift for a few seconds more, before gravity takes over and it strikes the ground with the sound of crashing drums and tortured horns.

If you pay attention to the album, you’ll notice a pattern emerging. The album’s 9 tracks can be divided into 3 groups of 3 songs, with each trinity consisting of two longer pieces sandwiching a short filler track. But unlike most bands who employ ambient segues, Do Make Say Think invest enough beauty into their “filler” tracks that they hold some of the album’s most intriguing sonics. The surreal swirl of strings and delicate things on “War On Want” and “107 Reasons Why“ s doleful progression of guitars, dulcimer, and horns are certainly lovely in their own right.

However, they pale when compared to “It’s Gonna Rain,” which reveals the ragged, gurgling sounds of “Auberge Le Mouton Noir” and “Outer Inner & Secret” to be the sound of rain pouring on a busy city street. On headphones, the depth of sound is amazing, with the sounds of traffic, human voices, and footsteps sounding ghostly and ephemeral amidst the crisp, sharp static of the downpour. But while your ears are captivated by that, the band continues to subtly sculpt the track, working in digital echoes of “Ontario Plates” until it develops a poignancy and tangibility quite unlike anything else in the band’s repertoire.

From this ghostly morass emerges the gentle sounds of “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!,” all plucked acoustic guitars, fluttering electronics, sighing horns, and percolating rhythms. The title might be the single most accurate one I’ve heard all year, as the song ends in a celebratory burst of analog noodling, church organ, psychedelic lap steel, and a ghostly chorale to boot.

I’ve used many words to describe Do Make Say Think, but I never thought I’d use words like “happy,” “joyous,” and “content.” However, those are the only words that seem applicable here. And after making it through the dense, staggering terrain of the previous 45 minutes or so, the band has earned this respite, this blissfully loose jam that sounds like it was recorded off the cuff, probably as the last rays of the sunset came streaming into the band’s rural studio.

It seems only fitting that the last thing you hear on Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is someone saying “Let’s play it again.” Not because the band messed up and need to do another take, but because they got the song right and simply want to experience the joy of playing it one more time.

In my limited band experiences, there were moments, after a song was done and the sounds had faded away, when you were just left staring at each other with rather dumbfounded looks on your faces. Somehow all of the pieces fell into place and something happened, though you weren’t exactly sure just what. And all you wanted to do was play it again, to be back in that moment, trying to recapture whatever it was that just took place between you. This album emerges from just such a place, and having heard it, I can’t blame the band for wanting to experience it all over again.

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